How the Western Won

Lost Highways

How The Western Won

Season 4, Episode 5

Westerns often reveal more about the period when they were produced than the era they portray, but the genre won't die. On this episode of Lost Highways, we'll trace the rise of The Western in American pop culture, the significance of landscape in film, and the moral guidelines that set the boundaries for US films produced from the late-19th Century to the present. From classic to revisionist and contemporary films, Westerns have both created and pushed back on the myths America tells itself. 

How The Western Won (Script)

Lost Highways from History Colorado is made possible by The Sturm Family Foundation, proud supporters of the Humanities and the power of storytelling for more than twenty years, and by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, designed to explore the human endeavor.

Noel: Hey, this is Noel. I want to introduce you to one of our producers, Dustin Hodge. Before he came to Lost Highways, he worked in broadcast news and documentary film, and for 10 years, he was the showrunner for two national television shows that focused on rural issues. And recently he worked as a producer for Dr.Cornell West’s podcast, The Tightrope. Dustin knows a ton about the history of film, and we're excited to share this episode about the history of westerns.

Dustin: I grew up in Texas, on the outskirts of the town of Stephenville the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” Just one of several cities that claim the title.

As a kid, more than anything I wanted a horse so I could ride the open prairies, even though our pasture was tiny – about the size of a few football fields, but a horse simply wasn’t in our budget.
Even without a reliable mount, the idea of being a cowboy out in the wild and rugged outdoors stayed with me, and it was reinforced by all the weekends I spent with my grandfather. He was a lean grizzled man who wore boots and a cowboy hat. He’d worked decades for the Sante Fe railroad.

We watched a lot of western TV shows, series like Rawhide, Gunsmoke, and The Rifleman.
And while I loved spending time with my grandfather, I didn’t really love the shows he did; they felt outdated, too tidy, and they weren’t even in color. They were too simple—episodic stories that could be solved in under an hour.

After a couple of years of being horseless, one day, my father “gifted” me… an angry donkey – one who did NOT like being ridden. Eventually, my donkey and I compromised: he would let me hop on and ride in exchange for fresh apples. I was an only child, and we didn’t have any neighbors nearby, so the donkey and I became close friends. We stood out in Stephenville, the Cowboy Capital of the World. I was the kid riding a donkey instead of a horse.
That’s why I really remember the time I first saw Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy–three movies that were vastly different from the TV westerns I was used to. There is a scene in A Fistful of Dollars where Clint Eastwood’s character confronts four men after they laugh and shoot at the feet of the mule he was riding.

“I don't think it's nice, you laughin'. You see, my mule don't like people laughing. He gets the crazy idea you're laughin' at him. Now if you apologize, like I know you're going to, I might convince him that you really didn't mean it.”

A Fistful of Dollars was a remake of a Japanese film, created by an Italian director, shot in Spain, and featured actors from Austria, Spain, and Italy playing brothers. Perhaps that melting pot of cultures was what made it feel so American. 

But how could the shows my grandfather liked and the movies I enjoyed be so different, yet still be Westerns?

Dustin: From History Colorado, this is Lost Highways: Dispatches from the Shadows of the Rocky Mountains. I’m Dustin Hodge.

Dustin: In this episode, we’ll walk through the complex timeline of the “western” genre.  And examine how westerns have both created and pushed back on the myths America tells itself

Ideas of rugged individualism, frontier justice, and self-made pioneers served to justify troublesome aspects of America’s “manifest destiny.”

To help untangle over a century of western American mythology, I reached out to Angelica Lawson from the University of Colorado and asked her to help us understand where the Western genre of the last century originated.
Angelica Lawson: I do think the Western genre is uniquely American, in part because the Western genre itself in film derives from the literature that actually came before it.
Dustin: Early frontier literature was sort of the precursor to the Western, like James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans.
[CLIP from Last of the Mohicans]
Chingachgook: The frontier moves with the sun and pushes the Red Man of these wilderness forests in front of it until one day, there will be nowhere left. Then our race will be no more, or be not us.
Hawkeye: That is my father's sadness talking.
Chingachgook: No, it is true. The frontier place is for people like my white son and his woman and their children. And one day there will be no more frontier. 

Dustin: This is a clip from the Last of the Mohicans film, based on James Fenimore Cooper’s novel published in 1826. It was the second book in his five-part series—The Leatherstocking Tales. Set in the French and Indian War, it told the story of the last chief of the Mohican tribe. Cooper, says Angelica Lawson, really set the template for the Western genre. 

Angelica Lawson: A lot of what he and other authors were doing at that time were really trying to consciously develop a kind of uniquely American literature.  

Angelica Lawson: The most obvious answer to that was the unique American landscape of this country and the indigenous people that inhabited it 

Dustin: An 1862 article from The Atlantic claimed the following about Cooper, “ no one has caught and reproduced more broadly and accurately the spirit of our institutions, the character of our people, and even the aspects of Nature in this our Western world.” And yet, even for his moment in history, Cooper’s depiction of the west was deeply misleading and over-simplified.

Angelica Lawson: He's often credited with creating this kind of opposite stereotypes of the noble savage and then the bloodthirsty savage. The bloodthirsty savages in the story are extremely violent, and they're sneaky and they're underhanded. The noble savage is in a way almost allowed to be Nobel, and they're often very spiritual and have other sort of positive qualities because they're on their way out. Essentially they're going to be replaced by the Euro-American male protagonist. 


Dustin: Last of the Mohicans was set in New York when that state was still the “western frontier”, but as the population grew on the East coast, people and literature shifted West. Stories of the cowboy started to take root.

Victoria Lamont I'm Victoria Lamont. I'm a professor of American literature at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and I'm the author of Westerns A Women's History. The term cowboy was originally a derogatory term to designate a male who was a servant who was low status. So you were a cowboy. And that distinguished you from the cattle men who owned the ranches and had the power and the money.
Victoria:And then a shift really happened when Buffalo Bill started his Wild West show in the late 1880s, early 1890s, and  toured all over the United States and eventually also toured Europe.

Victoria: And so the cowboy really captured the imagination of popular audiences.
Dustin:  By the mid to late 19th century, cowboy stories were still lowbrow.
Victoria Lamont The Cowboy was a figure that you would see in some cheap fiction in nickel and dime novel novels that were sold to sort of young boys. They were a kind of a low status kind of writing.
Dustin: Then, in 1902, a writer named Owen Wister published The Virginian, often considered the first cowboy novel.

Victoria Lamont  The success of his novel really sort of brought the cowboy to the forefront of a more sort of middlebrow or higher brow kind of prestige. 

Dustin: While Wister certainly showed there was a large audience for  western literature, the first cowboy novel was written in 1889.

Victoria Lamont: Emma Ghent Curtis was instrumental in advocating for women's suffrage in Colorado. Part of her strategy was to write stories that involved women's suffrage themes. 

Dustin: Her second novel, published in 1889 was the Administratrix, a Western.

Dustin: The story involves a romance between a schoolteacher named Mary and a cowboy named Jim. They eventually marry.

Victoria Lamont: She's afraid of this cowboy person who seems very rough around the edges. He seems kind of scary, kind of dangerous. And she overcomes her prejudices, which is kind of a metaphor for a kind of larger national story about the importance of American national identity of embracing that kind of rugged violence of the West and sort of taking it into your identity and accepting it as part of your identity.

Dustin: Mary’s husband is falsely accused of cattle rustling and killed by vigilantes. Mary vows to get revenge, disguises herself as a cowboy, and joins the gang. Then during a cattle roundup, she reveals her identity as the widow of the murdered cowboy. In a flash of drama, she draws her gun, utters the line, “‘No man will take me alive”,  and shoots down every single killer. But in tragic fashion, she, in turn, is shot down too.

Victoria Lamont:it kind of erupts in this melodramatic gun violence that is not unfamiliar to American audiences of other Westerns, like, for example, Sergio Leone's  Dollars films starring Clint Eastwood. But again, you see this theme that's so iconic of Westerns, and it's in this novel written by a woman suffrage activist in 1889.

Dustin: The Administratrix didn’t have the same mass impact as Owen Wister’s cowboy novel, The Virginian, which helped publishers see a growing audience for cowboy literature. But Emma Ghent Curtis’ early tragic western showed that readers weren’t ready for a story that combined gun violence and social issues like women’s suffrage.   

Victoria Lamont: So it's just another example of this invisible contribution of women writers to the literary history of stories about cowboys.

Dustin: Both The Administratrix and The Virginian helped establish the themes and tropes that would become popular in pulp magazines in the early 20th Century. Western Story Magazine, the first pulp magazine dedicated exclusively to  stories about the wild west, sold half a million copies each issue. The stories were mass produced, inexpensive, and there were tens of millions in circulation.  Those sensational stories about outlaws, cowboys, and guns touched the American cultural subconscious. 

Victoria Lamont: I think of the Western  as a colonial story that then was sort of perpetuated over and over again by this American cultural machine.

Dustin: This colonial story, which ultimately served to justify the violence of Manifest Destiny, is the backbone of most Westerns that followed. 

Victoria Lamont: Then you have Hollywood and then you have American television. And all of these cultural forms are immensely popular internationally. 

Dustin: In the late 19th century, at the same time Western literature was rising in popularity so too was the western film. And Colorado was at the forefront of early western films. 

David Emmerich  My name is David Emmerich. I'm a second-generation filmmaker from Colorado. We just passed the 125th anniversary of the first films being shot in Colorado. They were shot in early October 1897 at the corner of Colfax and Broadway. And it was a celebration of mining and agriculture and what Colorado is. The footage would have been seen worldwide. And strangely enough, those films still exist. 
Dustin: Through David’s research, he uncovered a still photo of that Denver parade featured in the 1887 films.
David Emmerich And one of the photos has everybody staring at these floats, going down 16th Street. And behind them there is a gigantic poster of the first permanent film theater in Denver. the film is promoting the Edison Company films, and nobody is paying attention to that. They're paying attention to the Old West that's walking in front of them. It's Native American tribes and it's cowboys, they're all facing the past, they're facing the parade. But behind them is this huge poster that is representative of what the 20th century is going to be.  Is it right then or is it the past? Well, it's kind of both. So the silent era is full of that kind of juxtaposition of not really knowing whether it's the present that they're talking about or the past.

Dustin: The silent films of the early 20th century were relatively short.
David Emmerich So films that were shot before 1928–they were all 5 minutes long to 15 minutes long. So the early, early ones, which we called actualities, were kind of the germ of what documentaries became.
Dustin: During the early 1900s, most of the film production companies were based on the East Coast. The Selig Company was one of the first to set roots in Colorado. 

David Emmerich  Seelig sent a troop West to, first, American City, above Central City, and then to Cañon City in the summers of 1911 and 1912. And they shot 50 to 60 films again one a week. They were quick and they were silent. They were easy to produce. 

Dustin: The content of films began to shift from factual documentaries to story-based narratives. Westerns were a primary focus for this new format.

David Emmerich  Colorado has this pretty interesting point of being in exactly that very beginning of the Western story film.

David Emmerich So there was a large strike in Cripple Creek in 1903, and there was quite a bit of violence. And that's a subject for a different podcast, for sure.

Dustin: Quick plug for another episode of Lost Highways: earlier this season we produced an episode about Cripple Creek called “The Man Who Regretted His Millions.” 
David Emmerich A film called Trapped by Bloodhounds or a Lynching at Cripple Creek was shot in Cripple Creek in 1904. There are some really interesting bits about that film that, make it very confusing what exactly people saw on the screen and what they thought they were seeing. But there are newspaper articles about this man begging people to understand that he was acting in it and that he didn't actually kill the woman. 

Dustin: In the Selig company catalog, the film is described as 
“one of the most sensational pictures ever made. Our photographer was in Cripple Creek, ready for business, when the exciting events occurred. Dozens of prominent miners and citizens who have since been involved in deportation troubles can easily be recognized in the picture.”

Even though the film was fictional, Selig often promoted it as factual, which caused confusion among audiences who were used to seeing films that documented actual events.

David Emmerich And so it's a pretty, pretty interesting film because, again, it crosses over this idea of what is real life, what's the real West, and what's just a movie.  
It's one of the very earliest true story films, rather than documenting a parade or a funeral or a ship christening or whatever that had been dominant about the first ten years of filmmaking.  

Dustin: That film was directed by one of Colorado’s earliest filmmakers, Harry Buckwalter. He documented the landscapes of the state through a series of travelogue films. They all have titles that sound like youtube videos:  Freight Train in the Royal Gorge, Arrival on Summit of Pikes Peak, Trip through Colorado, and Ute Pass from a Freight Train. 

Buckwalter was also very good at self-promotion. In 1906 advertisements for Selig, he wrote “I  have made the only good films ever made in Colorado.”

The film industry has always been built upon celebrities and self-promotion. The early 20th century saw the rise of silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Flo Lawrence, and Max Linder. Then Westerns suddenly had their big-name celebrity, too.

David Emmerich:  Tom Mix was the first  cowboy film star. And what we think of it as being kind of the Roy Rogers of the fifties sixties, or kind of a little too slick to be real, but definitely a cowboy. And he could ride and he did his stunts and he was a big, strong man. And so he made films in Cañon City in 1911 and then the very end of 1912.

Dustin: Tom Mix made over two hundred and fifty films with titles like King Cowboy, The Man from Texas, and Why the Sheriff is a Bachelor. He wore flamboyant outfits and a giant ten-gallon white hat. In fact, a Tom Mix-style cowboy hat is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He was a precursor to John Wayne. However, he was a real cowboy. Early Westerns often featured a combination of real cowboys, failed rodeo performers, and people who had a strong sense of nostalgia for the west.

Wyn Wachhorst: the Western and American nostalgia actually arose together. It dates from the late 19th century when a wave of escapist fantasy swept through popular culture. 

Dustin: This is Wyn Wachhorst, a writer and historian.

Wyn Wachhorst: The myth of the cowboy, the powerful innocent is nostalgic to the core. He represents the West, that space on the globe that was still open to exploration and discovery. 

Dustin: In order to be heroes, cowboys need a harsh, desolate landscape.

Wyn Wachhorst The vast scale of the land with its extremes of light and climate. I think these settings work in two ways. They mainly elevate the hero by making him an integral part of the landscape, a kind of spirit of the land, the isolated, relentless, enduring. 

<Shane movie Clip>

Dustin: This is a clip from the end of the 1953 Western Shane. Wyn Wachorst says this classic western perfectly illustrates the use of landscape as a moral backdrop.

Wyn Wachhorst: The men in the community in the film try to stand up to the villains, but they're helpless, and every civilized attempt to negotiate with the villains fails. So in the end, the violent, super good man defeats the violent super bad man, through an even greater and more perfect violence.  

Dustin: Shane comes down from the lonely mountains, saves the day, and ultimately returns back to the Tetons.

Wyn Wachhorst: [ Shane is always seen against the majestic mountains and this sprawling land. He's the spirit of the wilderness.

Dustin: But landscape was also important in establishing the myth that the wide open frontier was ripe for adventurous settlers, as Victoria Lamont explains.

Victoria Lamont When I think of the landscapes that are iconic of the Western, I think of two different types of landscapes. One is the American south Western landscape. So it's desert. It's vast. And then the other one, would be the kind of grassland west and there might be mountains in the background, but it's an equally vast kind of open territory and helps fulfill the psychic needs of settler cultures. And so there's this fantasy that this land is open and available and it's there for the taking.

Dustin: Westerns suggested the idea that someone could change their life if they could conquer the wide and empty land.

Victoria Lamont: And so that landscape also functions as a kind of proving ground for these iconic American virtues of individualism, heroism, work ethic, that you can take that landscape and transform it and survive on it. 

Dustin: Additionally, Westerns often depicted settlers as isolated from civilization, further setting up the idea of lone heroes.  Angelica Lawson:

Angelica Lawson: The Settler's house is completely alone out in the middle of this vast open area, and there are no other signs of any other settlers around. So you get the sense that there's this long distance between homes. And if something terrible were to happen, they're essentially on their own.

Dustin:  The idea of conquering the wild unknown, staking a claim, and building a new future is the plot of hundreds of westerns. But those movies were reflecting a common belief for many. 
Angelica Lawson: If you present Native Americans as these sort of primitive people who can't evolve, who can't adapt, and who are just purely violent., it's easy to justify things like westward expansion and the Indian wars. And so I think that's a big part of the reason why the Western was so popular. You have this really intense interest and a kind of nationalistic narrative that is promoting a very popular kind of mythology.

<Gunsmoke theme>
Dustin:  The Western continued to expand from books to pulp magazines to movies to television. For nearly two decades, from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, over one hundred Western series aired on television. In 1959 alone, there were thirty Westerns on during primetime.

Every night westerns appeared on TV as stripped-down morality plays: white hat versus black hat, good versus evil, where  justice prevailed by any means.

 For thirty years, films were limited in what could be featured on screen. Movies produced from 1934 to 1968 followed a set of self-censorship guidelines commonly referred to as the Hayes Code,  a set of moral guidelines for Hollywood films to keep a picture from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it.” 

The code prohibited a number of situations from being shown: suggestive nudity, illegal traffic of drugs, actual childbirth, ridicule of the clergy, the inference of sexual perversion, and interracial relationships. Here's Ernesto Acevedo Munoz, professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Colorado.

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz: So when we see them in the classical western, it's either indirectly referred to as is the case of High Noon where there is evidence that, well, the Gary Cooper character before he married Grace Kelly, he had a relationship with the Mexican madam. 

<High Noon Clip>

Dustin: Killing off characters of color was one way Hollywood got around the code.

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz: Linda Darnell in John Ford's My Darling Clementine, who is also sort of the town prostitute. And she can be redeemed when Victor Mature proposes to marry her, but he doesn't get to marry her. She gets shot to death before that happens. So it's only imagined.

<My Darling Clementine Clip>

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz: Any form of miscegenation, of interracial relations had to be greatly justified or it had to end badly.  

Dustin: Angelica Lawson points out that the killing of non-white love interests happened so often there is a name for the cliche.

Angelica Lawson:  The trope of the Indian princess. The Indian princess, who is an ally to and falls in love with the main male lead, typically won't make it to the end of the film. Which sort of, quote, solves the indigenous miscegenation problem that the Hays Code didn't allow for.

Dustin: In the 1950 film Broken Arrow…

Angelica Lawson:  Jimmy Stewart's character falls in love with an Apache princess and she dies.  

<Broken Arrow Clip>

Angelica Lawson: It's a sympathetic western for sure. And an important film in some ways for that, because it's coming out in 1950, but it's still following those formulas to a large degree. 

Dustin: Another trope common in Westerns was the good guy in a white hat. The Hays Code stated that the “sympathy of the audience will never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.” 

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz: To avoid the triumph of evil, that means that the good guys have to kill a lot of people.  The Searchers,  we have good Indians and bad Indians. The good Indians are the ones that fight next to the white man. The bad Indians are the ones who are enemies of these, for whatever reason, and it's okay to kill them.

Dustin: This is a scene from Searchers where John Wayne shoots the eyes from the body of a Comanche warrior.

<Searchers Clip>

Dustin: The film ends with an iconic shot of  John Wayne’s character framed in the door of the house. He doesn’t enter the home like the rest of the family. He’s a flawed character who doesn’t fit in with civilization. There’s no place for his hatred. The Searchers can be watched as a slow reckoning of historical racism, a self-examination by John Ford and the genre.
The film is often seen as Ford’s first attempt at rectifying his portrayal of Native Americans by viewing it through the lens of the hate-filled John Wayne character. 

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz: The war ended like three years ago, and he’s still wearing his Confederate uniform. Then he goes on a rampage, killing Indians. And then at the end, he seems to say, well, I guess I'm giving up and he walks away to the lonely desert. 

Dustin: Ford’s depiction of Native Americans in the film was still problematic, but by showing John Wayne’s character as an unapologetic racist who doesn’t fit into society, The Searchers took a small step in the right direction. And maybe for the 1950s, it was a huge step. The film was released in 1956, about six months before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

As the civil rights movement began sweeping through the United States, westerns began to decline.

Stephen Armstrong: Over and over and over again, we see Westerns proliferating, enjoying great popularity, and also rooting through the belief systems of this country, the West and so forth, questioning them radically or upholding them. And then, poof. Toward the end of the sixties. You have the appetite for the Westerns declining. 

Dustin: This is Steven B Armstrong, a professor at Utah Tech University and the editor of a book called Western Portraits: The Unsung Heroes and Villains of the Silver Screen. 
Stephen Armstrong: And what accounts for that? Some posited, you know, overexposure that having too many. Westerns on TV.  People didn't want it anymore. They're just bored.

Dustin: But it was more than just oversaturation. 

Stephen Armstrong: The response to Vietnam was not popular. And the Western began to sort of be perceived perhaps as something that not so much had contradicted and challenged the myths of America. but rather something that upheld the myths. Upheld the myths that had led to the fiasco of a war no one understood.

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz: The social function of the classical Western is the belief these movies justify violence in the making of America and the making of American history.


Dustin: As the popularity of Westerns started to wane, they also started to morph and depict a West that was more nuanced. In 1968, the Hays code was replaced by the letter rating system.

Westerns no longer had to follow strict guidelines, and the films produced in the late 1960s and 1970s reflected that freedom. Revisionist films told morally ambiguous stories that tried to bust traditional myths.

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz: We see what we call the revisionist western, where the whole concept of the movie maybe not affirming the myths that build the West or the myths that we have come to want to believe about the West, but rather to interrogating those myths. 

Dustin: 1964's, Cheyenne Autumn  was the last western John Ford directed. It was loosely based on the Northern Cheyenne Exodus from 1878 to 1879 when three hundred Northern Cheyenne attempted to return to their ancestral home in Wyoming from Oklahoma. 

<Cheyenne Autumn Clip>
Capt. Thomas Archer: But this wasn't just another day to the Cheyenne. Far from their homeland, as out of place in this desert as eagles in a cage, their three great chiefs prayed over the Sacred Bundle that at last the promises made to them more than a year ago would today be honored. The promises that had led them to give up their own way of life in their own green and fertile country... 1500 miles north.
<end clip>
Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz: We get movies where the Cowboys are apologizing and sort of coming out in a way and saying, well, this thing we did was, really terrible.  
Dustin: But some revisionist movies go beyond just an apology, like 1970’s Little Big Man, says Angelica Lawson.
Angelica Lawson: They're definitely trying to both show the Indigenous people were already in the West and that they were just largely trying to defend their homes from westward expansion. But they also try to humanize those characters and show that they actually came from pretty complex societies and had a lot of value.
Dustin: One scene from the film is particularly noteworthy…

Angelica Lawson: So, for example, in Little Big Man you actually have a scene where General Custer's military attacks Cheyennes along the Washita River, which is based on a real historical event. So including those real historical moments in the revisionist Western helped to contextualize more of the reality that was taking place out here.
 <Clip Little Big Man>
Dustin: The Washita Massacre took place on November 27, 1868 in what's today western Oklahoma.
But, Little Big Man wasn’t the only film released in 1970 that dealt with the harsh realities of history. Soldier Blue is a shockingly honest film based on the events of the Sand Creek Massacre. 230 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho were murdered by US troops. Like Little Big Man, Soldier Blue was an allegory for the war in Vietnam, and represented a growing movement to draw attention to the genocidal violence of American imperialism in the West. 

Even with revisionist films challenging the myths of the American West, the genre sputtered out.

Stephen:  I would argue that you have the, the great end of the American high period of Western production comes with the Jimmy Stewart,  John Wayne, collaboration called The Shootist, which is a movie, I wanna say 1976 – it's about a western hero, played by John Wayne, who has cancer. Jimmy Stewart is the doctor who diagnoses him. And it's coming to terms with a professional gun fighter at the end of his life. And in many ways coming to terms with the end of the Western genre at the end of its life.

< The Shootist>

Stephen Armstrong: Stewart and Wayne had so notably appeared together in John Ford's earlier questioning of the genre, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with the famous line, “Print the legend!” 

< The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance>

Stephen Armstrong:And so you have this conflict with Westerns. What is the legend? What is the truth? 

Dustin: The revisionist western was an evolution of the genre that tried to correct the legend, but few successful Westerns were made through the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s.

Craig Johnson: [00:08:21] The American West might as well be a vampire because every couple of years somebody declares, the American Western is dead, This is the final nail in the coffin of the American West. It's all been said. It's all been done. Whenever we get declared dead, the Western kind of rears back up
Dustin: This is Craig Johnson, New York Times best-selling author of the Walt Longmire book series, which has been translated into thirty languages. He’s also the creator of the Longmire television series on Netflix.
 <Clip from Longmire>

Dustin: Longmire is a contemporary Western, so I asked Craig to explain why there’s an allure to modern Westerns.
Craig Johnson: Those social issues and the things that we deal with as Westerners. it's modern day, but it's also curious to me that an awful lot of the issues that, you know, that we faced in the period West still haunt us, you know, and still are things that we deal with, you know, in the contemporary American West, too.
Dustin: Longmire has been recognized for its inclusion and depiction of indigenous peoples. The TV series has won two Red Nation Film Awards of Excellence.
Craig Johnson: Well, it's really easy answer to the question of why it is that the native peoples are included in my books: Becdause they live here! They're my friends, my neighbors, you know, family. My ranch is just to the south of the northern Cheyenne and the Crow reservations whenever I'm up there, you know, standing around a campfire, talking with my friends and everything, I'm kind of aware that my kind of people have only been in this part of the world for a couple of hundred years. Whereas, you know, people like my good friend Marcus Red Thunder. his people have been there for a couple of thousand.
Dustin: The Longmire series is set in Wyoming between a Cheyenne reservation and a Crow reservation, but Craig makes clear distinctions between the two tribes.
Craig Johnson: You're talking about different sovereign nations,I try and be as specific as I can.
Dustin: A lot of earlier filmmakers, like John Ford, were not as specific, says Angelica Lawson.
Angelica Lawson: He was so invested in creating this kind of mythology of the West, and this again sort of romanticization of westward expansion, the way that he used Native American characters in his films is both very problematic and interesting because he would, on the one hand, employ actual Native Americans as extras in a lot of his films.
Dustin: However, Ford created a homogenized version of indigenous people.
Angelica Lawson:  That really didn't have any kind of tribal specificity or would speak the tribal language of the actual characters in the film. Each film had a different tribe featured in it, but they were all being played by Navajo extras speaking Navajo language. Except for the stars, right? Those were played by white actors in red face.It creates this whole body of work that essentially erases the tribal specificity and uniqueness of both the people and the culture and the languages of the actual tribes that are supposedly being featured in the film.
Dustin: However, in the 1990s and the 2000s, several independent films were written and directed by Native Americans that depicted tribal specificity.
Angelica Lawson: And most of their films are set in the present and they want to feature Native Americans today. A lot of these films do some really great things in terms of that representation. We’re largely trying to tackle the lack of representation of Contemporary Native Americans in films.
Dustin: Like the revisionist westerns in the 1960s, the independent movies made by Native American filmmakers in the 90s and early 2000s were small signs of changing narratives. Movies like Smoke Signals, The Doe Boy, and Naturally Native  were new perspectives in the film industry. This is a clip from 1998’s Smoke Signals.  
<Clip from Smoke Signals>

In the past decade, there has been a surge of westerns like the ratings juggernaut Yellowstone and its prequel 1883. In addition, a lot of Westerns are more nuanced and more representative of the diverse reality of the American West, like the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven starring Denzel Washington and Lee Byung Hun.
2021’s The Harder They Fall features all black principal cast members. Characters are based on real historical figures like Stagecoach Mary, the first Black woman employed by the United States postal service, and Cathay Williams, a Black woman who passed as a man to join the Buffalo Soldiers. 

There have been two recent TV series that are created by and feature Native Americans as main characters: Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs.

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz: Reservation Dogs, which particularly takes a lot of the misconstruction about Native Americans and Native American culture and the Native American experience, and kind of its reclaiming that history in many ways.

Dustin: Reservation Dogs is set in rural Oklahoma.

Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz: Another thing that we so often don't see in the Western. So here we have not just a reservation but the show actually made in Oklahoma reminding us Oklahoma was called Indian Territory pretty much until annexation.
Dustin: Every writer, director, and series regular on Reservation Dogs is Indigenous. Episodes are full of references to indigenous slang and culture.

Angelica Lawson: The episode with the Owls that was hanging from a tree. And they had actually, like, pixelated the eyes so that the audience can't see the eyes of the owl, which was so great because it was cognizant of the fact that you're not supposed to see that for a lot of indigenous people.

[CLIP from Reservation Dogs]
Not an Owl.
Oh my God.
Yoooo. That’s not a good sign. 

Angelica Lawson: Having Indigenous people in control of their own stories is particularly important. So there's definitely a kind of knowledge that comes across in those stories and in those shows that you're not going to get from, you know, a professional non-native non-indigenous person.

Dustin: In 2022, Reservation Dogs won a Peabody Award for its contribution to authentic depictions of Native Americans on the small screen.

Angelica Lawson: I think a lot of folks from reservations and rural communities are relating to those characters and that's very exciting. 



The very first Western superstar, Tom Mix, said, "The Old West is not a certain place in a certain time. It's a state of mind. It's whatever you want it to be. " 

I WANTED and NEEDED the West to be HOME. 

My father was a migrant worker, and for the first six years of my life, we moved – to different cities, different states, motel to motel, one after the next, all across the United States. It felt like we'd been on a wagon train moving west for years. We finally settled down in a trailer on a small farm outside Stephenville, Texas. And our farm looked just like those wild, open frontier landscapes of those serial westerns I'd watched with my grandfather. 

But, I was an outsider to those generational family farmers. Even though I wanted to be a cowboy, I never felt like the white hat cowboys of the classic westerns. My life was the shades of gray from the revisionist Westerns.

My father gave me that donkey with his soft matted brown hair and white muzzle.We named him Kamere because I had spent months trying to ride him and getting thrown off. Each time I would chase him down while yelling, "Come here."

I was a stubborn kid, but after a few hundred times of being violently ejected into the air and landing onto the dirt,  I decided to bribe Kamere. He loved apples from our fruit tree. I’ll pick one, cut it into little pieces, and slowly ease onto his back.    And eventually, I was able to ride him. 

Kamere would tilt his ears back, and all four legs would leave the ground on every excited, apple-fueled gallop and all my worries about fitting in melted away.

I found a different West than the one I'd imagined in my mind. But while Kamere and I rode off into the wide open spaces of our pasture, I was home.

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